The first step in winning the future is encouraging American innovation. That was a key theme in President Obama’s recent State of the Union address, and his list of to-do items to get us there makes it clear that nurturing innovation is everyone’s business. It’s time for business leaders, legislators and educators to work together and step up our game in research and technology innovation, and to optimize the infrastructures of government, education and business so we can “out-innovate” our past levels.

Education is the foundation for any long-term plan to spur innovation. One of the powerful calls to action by the president is to celebrate the winner of the science fair as proudly as we do the winner of the Super Bowl. The U.S. needs a scientifically literate and technically skilled work force to populate our increasingly sophisticated workplace. And we need to equip young people with sufficient understanding of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) so they have the skills to compete successfully in a globalized economy driven by technology.

Of equal importance, the president reiterated his commitment to a government that is leaner, smarter and more efficient than in the past. This too plays an important role in improving America’s competitiveness. By harnessing the power and potential of technology, data and innovation, government agencies at all levels can help enable investments and cross-sector collaboration needed to fuel entrepreneurialism and better serve its citizenry.

A Man vs. Machine Jeopardy Faceoff

On Monday, Feb. 14, there will be a historic battle on one of America’s most popular quiz shows that will illustrate the imperatives President Obama has outlined for the country. In the first-ever man versus machine Jeopardy competition, an IBM computing system called Watson will compete against the show’s two most successful and celebrated contestants.

Representing the future of information science, Watson demonstrates how the U.S. can continue to out-innovate the world. Watson is the result of four years of work by 25 IBM research scientists who set out to accomplish a grand challenge: build a computing system that rivals a human’s ability to answer questions posed in natural language with speed, accuracy and confidence.

The Watson project also shows the value of STEM education. The computer’s developers are the same people who probably took top honors at the science fair as children. It also boldly shows the largely untapped potential of analytics technology and advanced data management to transform federal, state and municipal government.

Improving Citizen Services

For government agencies, Watson represents a giant leap forward. The technology underpinning Watson can deliver information efficiently and in everyday terms, finding the critical knowledge buried in the huge volumes of natural language content that government organizations grapple with each day. While the computing system won’t replace human beings, it can give us a view of how technology can help us make better decisions and improve how government helps its citizens.

What makes government such a natural fit for this type of innovation? It’s the breadth and complexity of information that agencies must navigate. For example, what benefits is this veteran eligible for? What impact will that federal legislation have on our state? How should this person apply for citizenship? Has this food contamination happened in more than one city? The process of arriving at those answers is daunting. That’s where analytics becomes a differentiator in deciphering data and pointing to outcomes.

Here are a few examples of how Watson-like capabilities might be used to help drive smarter government:

  • Identifying medical benefits that should be fast-tracked because a life is at stake — Social services employees have no easy way of differentiating the claims for life-saving treatments from the hundreds of other requests in their queue. A system with Watson’s abilities can help the caseworker not only identify those claims but also, more importantly, find answers to questions like “How many cases in the past looked like this?” and “What was the process for getting them approved?”
  • Obtaining a building permit for a new municipal structure — This requires an employee to digest a number of data sources, often totaling thousands of pages and written in an unstructured (i.e., not machine-readable) form. Watson-like technology would be able to quickly read and understand those thousands of pages and provide the employee with a concise list of the processes and dependencies for obtaining the permit. Work that might take a week could be delivered in an hour to the employee’s computer.
  • Assessing the impacts of legislation — Legislation is highly complex and precedents stack up quickly. This supercharged form of analytics can wade through dense legal language to identify ramifications and even problems and inconsistencies with new legislation. Watson also provides an evidence profile, with pointers to the reference material that it used to draw conclusions. This would give employees a greater degree of confidence in the answer and the option of exploring the reference materials themselves.
  • Transforming business processes — It wouldn’t be practical to send someone to the Library of Congress and ask an employee to pull up all past cases where claims adjudication took more than 10 interactions with a citizen, or where an outcome would have been more effective if it could have been reached six months earlier in the process. With a computer system that can read and think, all of these answers are possible, freeing government agencies to focus their precious resources on fixing what’s broken.

Quiz Show to Government

At first glance these processes might seem rather removed from the kinds of questions asked on a Hollywood quiz show. But there are significant and promising parallels to government work. Jeopardy contestants must be conversant in a broad range of topics. (To arm Watson for its match, the computer was loaded up with 200 million pages of text, ranging from encyclopedias and dictionaries to movie scripts, newspapers and children’s book abstracts.) The game requires speedy responses and discourages guesswork. Most importantly, solving the clues involves analyzing subtle meaning and other language complexities in which humans excel and computers traditionally don’t.

Government organizations, like Jeopardy contestants, need access to accurate and actionable information, and rely on a constant flow of innovation to stay ahead of today’s growing volumes of information. This need is of even greater urgency now during a time of shrinking budgets and resources, when public sector organizations must do more with less to make informed decisions and improve outcomes for citizens.

We hope many will watch next week as a technological innovation makes its television debut. Watson offers hope. It inspires future innovators to explore math and science and to tackle complex societal challenges. And it reaffirms our country’s strength in innovation and our place in the winner’s circle.

Anne K. Altman  |  Contributing Writer

Anne K. Altman is general manager of the  IBM Global Public Sector.